When visiting the city of Tarsus, it is worth to remember not only about the monuments of the ancient period and the times of early Christianity. The history of the Grand Mosque (tr. Ulu Cami) is a perfect illustration of the turbulent history of the town, where numerous cultures and religions influenced each other, sometimes in an unexpected way.
The Grand Mosque was built in 1579, in the times when Tarsus was already a part of the Ottoman Empire. Previously, this region had been under the control of Radamanid dynasty. The Radamanids were one of numerous frontier beyliks established by Oghuz Turkish clans after the decline of Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. In 1516, they lost their independence and became the vassals of the Ottomans. In the name of this dynasty, Radamanid beys still administered Tarsus. İbrahim Bey, the son of Piri Pasha of the Radamanids, ordered the erection of the Grand Mosque in Tarsus.
The mosque was built in a place that had served the religious worship purposes for a long time. The inscription on the Grand Mosque provides information that an earlier mosque had stood there before. It was built in the 9th century when Tarsus was ruled by the Abbasid dynasty. When Tarsus was reconquered by the Byzantine army, that mosque was transformed into a church, presumably dedicated to St. Peter. The fate of this church remains a mystery; possibly it was intentionally demolished. On the other hand, some parts of this church could have been incorporated into the building now known as the Grand Mosque. The Bazaar of Forty Spoons (tr. Kırkkaşık Bedesten) was build simultaneously to the erection of the Grand Mosque in the late 16th century. It was managed by a religious foundation that supported the mosque with the funds obtained from the bedesten.
Let us now go back in time, to the already mentioned period of history when Tarsus was under the Arab control. The city was the main centre of the holy war waged by the Abbasids against the Byzantine Empire. Every year, when the snows melted, the Arab troops set off through the Cilician Gates in the Taurus Mountains deep into Asia Minor. Their raids plagued the lands under the control of the Christian Empire. Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun, who reigned from 813, was personally involved in such campaigns. Al-Tabari, a Perian historian, related that one day in August 833 Caliph Al-Mamun had been sitting on the bank of the river, enjoying the taste of the water. After a moment's hesitation, the caliph had decided to order a particular variety of fresh dates as the best snack to fit this cool water. He had invited his closest companions to this special feast. All the participants had fallen sick, but only the caliph had died of food poisoning. It happened near the town then called El Bedendum and now Pozantı, 80 km north of Tarsus. Caliph Al-Mamun was later buried in Tarsus, and his tomb can be seen inside the Grand Mosque.
Originally, the Grand Mosque had two minarets. The one in the north-west corner is detached from the main building. It has an inscription indicating that it was erected in 1363, so more than 200 years before the construction of the Grand Mosque. Therefore, it had most probably been a part of one of the first mosques built in Tarsus on the orders of Ramadan dynasty. This family had taken control of the city just four years earlier, in 1359. The second minaret, in the north-east corner of the mosque, was turned into a clock tower on the orders of the governor of Tarsus, Ziya Pasha, in 1895. The clock on the tower displays Hindu–Arabic numerals that were used in Turkey until 1928. They are different from the Arabic numerals that are now used almost worldwide (1,2,3). Even today, the numerals used in most Arab countries do not resemble their European counterparts. These symbols, borrowed by the European culture from the Arabs, evolved in a different direction than the characters in the Islamic culture. Their name - Hindu–Arabic numerals - is related to the fact that these digits are more similar to their Indian originals than the Arabic numerals used in the western culture.
The Grand Mosque, as its name suggests, is indeed the largest mosque in the city. The entrance to the building is located on the northern side. A monumental gateway built entirely of marble leads the visitors into a large unroofed courtyard. It is surrounded on three sides by colonnades that consist of a total of fourteen columns. Narrow passages run along these colonnades, covered with sixteen small domes. An ablution fountain stands in the centre of the courtyard.
The main building was constructed with cut stone blocks. The interior of the mosque is two times smaller than the courtyard. It has dimensions of 47 to 13 meters. It is an unusual solution as most of the mosques in Turkey have a plan closer to the square. In the case of the Grand Mosque in Tarsus, the achieved effect is a broad and shallow hall, further divided into three naves by the colonnades. The columns supporting the roof of the mosque are connected with half-pointed arches. The appearance of some of these columns suggests that they had been acquired from the ancient buildings of Tarsus. The pulpit and the mihrab are made entirely of marble.
In addition to the name of the Grand Mosque, the building is sometimes called Kebir Cami (Old Mosque) and Nur Cami (Mosque of Heavenly Light). The area around the mosque is known as Nur neighbourhood.
Admission to the Grand Mosque is free of charge. The mosque can be visited outside the prayer hours.